Chinua Achebes Essay On Heart Of Darkness

Chinua Achebe's new collection of essays is The Education of a British Protected Child. AFP hide caption

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Chinua Achebe's new collection of essays is The Education of a British Protected Child.

AFP

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe redefined the way readers understood Africa in his first novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, that book told the story of the English coming to Africa — from the perspective of Africans. It stands in stark contrast to Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, which follows an Englishman named Marlow who embarks on a journey up the Congo.

Though Achebe was attracted to Conrad's book as a child, he excoriated it in the 1970s, and he continues to dismiss it today.

"Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction," Achebe tells Robert Siegel.

Achebe says that once he reached a certain age, he realized that he was "not on Marlow's ship" but was, instead, one of the unattractive beings Marlow encounters in passing. At one point, Conrad describes an African working on the ship as a "dog wearing trousers."

"The language of description of the people in Heart of Darkness is inappropriate," says Achebe. "I realized how terribly terribly wrong it was to portray my people — any people — from that attitude."

Though Achebe dislikes Conrad's description of Africans, he does not feel that Heart of Darkness should be banned: "Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way — they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. ... I simply said, 'Read it this way,' and that's all I have done."

"An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" by Chinua Achebe (1961)

A Nigerian-born professor tears apart Joseph Conrad's revered, classic novella and accuses Conrad of being a "'thoroughgoing racist."' It's pretty rare for an academic to make such a blunt, even offensive, statement about a VIA (very important author). If this were a boxing match, let's just say there'd be a lot of blood on the ground and it wouldn't be Achebe's. (Of course, Conrad's already long gone, so it's not exactly the fairest fight either.)

If Conrad's use of Africa "'as setting and backdrop"' is part of what makes him a "'racist"' in Achebe's mind, then is it ever possible for a Western writer to create a story about a foreign land and have it not be racist?

Achebe does point out that since Conrad's story is pretty complex—with a story within a story and a narrator behind a narrator and all—that maybe people could view the "'racist"' attitudes as the character Marlow's view and not Conrad's. But Achebe's not totally buying that idea. Is he being too harsh on Conrad, especially since Conrad's book came out before the twentieth century (and all the PC movements that came with it) even began?

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